On Martin Luther King day, I remember a poem I began on a drive several years ago from Selma to Montgomery. It first appeared in Crab Orchard Review's special issue on Southern writing.
How do we keep the memory of those times alive? Maybe by re-examining and excavating our own memories and sharing them? Even though they may be powder-kegs, frighteningly explosive if we come too close to them.
This poem will be in my new collection, Descent, due from LSU Press in early fall of 2012.
What I See Now
I see yucca and winter stubble along
their route, now and then markers
noting the sites where they camped,
singing hymns, keeping watch as the Ancient
Ones do in the Bibles they carried.
I take note of hay bales like those
I grew up seeing everywhere,
Billy’s Tire Center crumbling to nothing
beside a small graveyard with plastic blooms
bled now to white from the weather.
Montgomery waits straight ahead,
looking these days like everywhere else.
Wal-Mart. Home Depot.
Driving through downtown,
we tick off the fast-food chains.
Why not MacDonald’s? We order
our coffee to go. Senior
discount. The girl at the register
rings it up, looking no older than
seventeen, her story holding
not much left of what happened
forty years ago.
I notice. Stark
purple eye shadow.
My best friend at Finishing School,
as we called it while lifting
our lily-white pinkies
and pursing our lips for effect,
came from Selma,
a beauty queen born late
to parents who asked that their only child
not room with anyone whose shade
of iris bloomed darker than blue.
Smoking cigarettes, bold in the parking lot,
we watched a regiment of frat men
in Rebel duds raising the Bonnie Blue Flag
while their girlfriends stood swaying
in hoop skirts: a squadron of cheerleaders
urging them onward, their brave drunks,
defenders of white Southern womanhood.
Meanwhile her mother was driving
across the state line with a black woman
kept in the back seat to mind
many layers of pink lace and satin,
arriving in time for the ball-gown
to be lifted out and ironed ever so carefully
down in the basement where
those not invited to Mayday
Ball, rapt as an ashram
of wannabe’s, inhaled
our Salem's right down
to the filter and exhaled
our smoke rings,
observing them hang
in the singed air like ghosts
before fading away.
Spanish moss hung,
my friend later told me,
from phony live oaks round the dance floor
while black waiters served phony champagne
(no alcohol within a 50 mile radius lest
we be banished, forevermore losing
our chance to be “finished”
like fine crystal ready to be rung
by just the right finger.).
My friend’s gown came back
splashed with whiskey, a stain
that could never be washed from its pink
satin bodice. My friend did not come back
the next year. She transferred to Birmingham
Southern. I wonder what she saw
with those bonnie eyes when the 16th Street
Baptist Church blew, and the little girls pulled
from the rubble lay finished
their role in this story I see now
as being a stubble field
close to the edge
of an altered state
line I’m still
trying to cross
with an old
inside my skull.